It was twenty years ago this week that rock and roll changed forever. On September 24, 1991 Nirvana released their second album, Nevermind, which appropriately featured a swimming baby on its cover. With this album and its hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nirvana gave birth to the popularity of “grunge” rock and turned alternative rock into a mainstream force (it didn’t hurt that Pearl Jam’s Ten with its hit song “Even Flow” had been released a month earlier). Unintentionally, Nevermind also gave birth to a new category of rock music, “classic rock,” because as of that moment, any rock band that was popular prior to 1991 was now a dinosaur. The rock and roll of the last fifty years was now dead. Don McLean may have believed in his song “American Pie” that the day the music died was when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed in 1959 but when Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl wrote “here we are now, entertain us,” the album oriented rock groups that had thrived in the late 1970’s and 1980’s were now as relevant to rock music as an electric football game was to kids raised on Nintendo.
To be sure, in 1991 there already existed some radio formats that played “classic rock.” In Phoenix, KSLX-FM (100.7) played songs from Led Zeppelin and The Who. 1991 also saw the release of Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion I and II, Van Halen’s For Unlawful Common Knowledge and Metallica’s Metallica (“the black album”). Unlike today, in 1991 those groups would have hardly been considered classic rock bands. But with Nevermind, Nirvana signaled an end to the type of rock music that had ruled the radio airwaves since the Beatles broke through in early 1960’s.
Perhaps the end was coming anyway. The mega popular bands of the late 1970’s and 1980’s, Journey, Styx, Boston, Foreigner, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac were either on extended hiatus or experiencing personnel issues that slowed down new releases. By the early 1990’s, the metal bands, hair or otherwise, such as Motley Crue, Poison, Ratt, Metallica, Cinderella, Guns N’ Roses and Van Halen had taken over the “rock and roll” format and were in vogue. A new national radio station out of Dallas, Texas had sprung up, Z-Rock, which was heard in Phoenix on KZRX-FM (100.3) and played nothing but hair metal. “If it’s too loud, you’re too old,” was Z-Rock’s tagline. Much like radio stations at the dawn of classic rock such as Phoenix’s KDKB-FM (93.3), it was a return to radio that focused on the bands, not the song titles, allowing for a playlist with deeper album cuts. But its limited format would have its drawbacks.
The new focus on metal bands as the “in” thing for rock and roll in 1991 drove some rock radio listeners to country music. A new type of artist in country music was emerging, the country rocker, a better alternative for fans of the Eagles or many southern rock bands. Garth Brooks’ Ropin’ The Wind became one of 1991’s most popular albums. The Gen-Xers were now coming of age to be able to buy their own type of music and the popularity of rap and hip-hop rose (perhaps because it was the only type of music the Gen-Xers could find that would make their parents, who were raised on The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who and Led Zeppelin say “How can you listen to that type of music, it’s nothing but noise”). Radio stations that programed rock and roll were looking for new heroes.
With Nevermind, Nirvana choked off what little breath was left in what was considered rock and roll music for the past fifty years. Early 1990’s artists such as Giant, Hardline, or The Storm, all of whom played the type of arena rock music that was popular in the 1970’s and 1980’s, never got out of the gate for their type of music was no longer the type that radio wanted to play anymore. Only recently has the arena rock sound, “classic rock” as it is now called, come back into fashion. Many bands celebrated their 25th, 30th, 35th or 40th anniversaries with tours last summer that pulled in huge audiences. Groups such as The Cars or Night Ranger are releasing new material that sounds, all meant in a good way, like it belongs in the late 1980’s. The pendulum has finally swung back.
People ask, who do you consider a classic rock band? My answer, any artist that played rock and roll music prior to September 24, 1991. Credit Nirvana’s Nevermind for ending an era but also for popularizing two of today’s rock genres, alternative rock and classic rock. Nevermind wasn’t the death of rock and roll, but the reclassification. It’s just taken twenty years for many to realize it’s okay to like both the old and the new.